“We’re sick and tired of this experience, we dream of writing, making films, talking of things that are not war.”
In this stark declaration by Ukrainian playwright Natal’ya Vorozhbit (from an interview with The Guardian), we can hear the fatigue and yearning of an artist—a person—whose life has been disrupted and shaped by war. This fatigue and yearning are also defining aspects of her unflinching play Bad Roads, currently presented by Crow’s Theatre.
As verbatim theatre, Bad Roads is testimonial, based on first-hand accounts of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Composed of six segments, the play is episodic in structure, with characters reappearing in either a new shape or an anecdotal form. These varied representations conjure a precarious through line. The war itself is an unyielding and oppressive constant, but we can never be quite sure the people who appear—the actors play multiple roles—are the specific individuals we’ve previously encountered or a fleshy, tormented echo.
Generally, the play isn’t self-aware, but the text and production feature a handful of poetic devices and, at least, one meta reference. In the first segment, a journalist tells us about an obsessive love affair with a soldier who takes her to the front lines. She talks to us as if we, the audience, are this man; and asks us how we’d feel if these intimate details of our relationship were turned into a piece of theatre. From this point on, a red scarf appears in each scene; standing out amidst the predominantly dark and drab earth tones, our eyes are drawn to the striking colour and it serves as a reminder that we are being told a story, focusing our attention on the ideas that link each scenario.
Earlier in the year, director Andrew Kushnir (in an article for Intermission) challenged Toronto theatre’s recent infatuation with Russian theatre classics. A number of Chekov and Chekov-adjacent productions were running almost back-back at a time when Russia was the Big Bad in our collective consciousness. Explicitly calling out the artistic practice of embracing iconic works as metaphoric and universal, he exposes the lie of this conceptual framing. Chekhov is inherently, definitively Russian; to deny that—or even diminish it purposefully—is comforting yet cowardly. Bad Roads, as an extension of his argument, is deliberately Ukrainian.
His staging is, at once, both highly stylized and urgently truthful, blending reality with a comical disregard for that reality. A key example of this balancing act is a scene in which a character, overcome with emotion, takes a jeep’s steering wheel with her as she erupts. Sim Suzer’s set conjures an ominous wasteland of moldy, broken tiles and flickering florescent lights; the stage is a landscape of burnt remnants. At the top, an elegant circle of white, pristine flooring suggests purity; as the play progresses, the actors use of the space disturbs this fragile token of order and immerses us in mess and grit. The grime of war is inescapable, nobody can remain clean here, regardless of their intentions.
Amidst these lyrical flourishes, the performances are grounded and naturalistic. Hunched bodies huddled in the cold, chewing seeds and spitting out the shells, flashlights aimed at frightened faces in the awful darkness, plastic tubs of soup offered in love and solidarity, men and women warped into grotesque, violent shapes—so many mundane, tangible details resonate here, giving the horrors of war a distinctive human tangibility.
This entire ensemble—Andrew Chown, Katherine Gauthier, Craig Lauzon, Diego Matamoros, Seana McKenna, Michelle Monteith and Shauna Thompson—is authentic and deeply nuanced. The most endearing of these characters reveal their capacity for cruelty and even the truly nasty pieces of work have some essential vulnerability. We cannot fully trust anyone here or dismiss them either. We have to take them home with us.
Of the many stirring moments, the second last scene is, no exaggeration, a staggering achievement. A journalist (Gauthier) and solider (Chown)—the same referenced in the opening scene (?)—deep in the bowels of an abandoned building, manifest the extremes of human compassion and brutality. Kushnir, with fight and intimacy director Anita Nattoly, has crafted an episode of harrowing humiliation and sexual violence without ever having the actors touch each other. The reason the stylized depiction works so well is the pivotal device—having actors mime contact while at a distance—is carefully set-up in earlier scenes. Gauthier and Chown are terrifying and heartbreaking in equal measure.
A hilarious and haunting epilogue—set before the war and featuring a dead chicken—ties up many of the play’s themes and lends it all a fable-like quality. The final black-out perfectly punctuates a moment of awful realization. We are left with the arresting image of McKenna’s face and body tensed in a defensive combination or horror, guilt, anger and displacement—a harrowing and poignant coda.